What is Mindfulness?
In the early 2010s, I attended my first weekend mindfulness retreat. Meet up with a bunch of ex-hippies and sit around listening to bells, breathing, and walking excruciatingly slowly? Sounds like a hip way to spend the end of a long school week. Surprisingly, I was enamored with the idea; I had wanted to attend a retreat like this for a long time.
When I showed up, I saw the sign that read “Shambhala Level One: The Art of Being Human”. I was in the right place. I was nervous because that’s the kind of person I am. New things scare me. That’s why it took me till I was 21 years old to go to one of these retreats. When I went inside, the weekend took off in a relaxing manner. Contrary to most weekend events–parties, motivation seminars, workshops, churches, etc.–we started with some hot tea and light chatter. We settled in on our cushions, or in my case on a chair with back support, and we listened to the instructor.
She gave us instructions for a form of meditation called Shamatha, a concentration exercise. Like we discovered in the Simple 1 Meditation, it’s easy to do little short bursts of counting, but doing it for an extended period without structure is more difficult. It’s harder to keep counting. The mind wanders. The goal of Shamatha, a precursor to Vipassana, is to find a level of concentration that allows the mind to focus on a single object for long stretches of time. It is in this state that we can access our inner workings and play with them, finding our strengths and gently altering our weaknesses.
I was no stranger to meditation. I had had a mindfulness practice for years before this, but I had never been to a formal instruction in a retreat setting. So, I went in with some measure of confidence. I should have been ready for what was coming; I was not.
See, there is a difference between meditating for 1 minute and 5 minutes. There’s a bigger difference between 5 minutes and 15 minutes. And, another hurdle between 15 and 30. Once you get to 30, it all starts to even out, I find. But, I had never done 30 at once before. And, our first session was 45 minutes straight. I was a 15-minute meditator, and it felt like wading in the shallow end and suddenly drowning in the 13 ft. end of the pool. I wanted out. I wiggled and squirmed. I twitched. I may have started sweating. My breathing got shallow. I may have had the very slightest of anxiety attacks.
In a moment of weakness, I looked up at the clock. 20 minutes had gone by. I gave up. Instead of focusing on my breath, I began to think about how much of a failure I was. I can’t sit still. I can’t focus on my breath. I can’t _____. You fill it in. My imagination is a precocious child, so I’m sure I was very creative with my self-deprecation.
The teacher had rung the bell. And, I had not meditated for 25 minutes. I was disappointed; the weekend had only just begun. I knew I needed to keep my head in the game, were I to come out of this with any valuable wisdom.
The teacher began to speak about what mindfulness is. I didn’t take any notes that weekend, but here’s how I define Mindfulness. “Mindfulness is the act of bringing about present-moment awareness as a healing tool for accepting our emotional thoughts, feelings, and states of being.”
Mindfulness is a way that we can connect with our feelings. And, when we connect to them via awareness, we become an active participant in how we respond to any perceived threats to our identity.
Without getting too heady too fast, our identities are built on these false judgments that we have. I learned from Dr. Robert Anthony that these subjective states of being are like stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes we don’t invent these stories. Maybe they come from your judgmental parents and their expectations. Maybe they come from your romantic partner who keeps nagging you about your faults. However they came to you, they are false. They belong to a subjectivity that has no basis in reality.
Mindfulness is a way to find the objectivity in any situation and shed the subjective judgments that keep us from being stable and grounded.
Our next instruction was to do walking meditation. I was sure that I would be very good at walking meditation. If I can sit for 15 minutes, I can walk for 10 minutes before our break. Again, I was so wrong. About 1 minute in, I’m already thinking “this is so dumb. Why am I doing this?”
10 minutes had gone by. And, it was break time. I was disappointed in my self again.
The rest of the weekend had a similar vibe to it. I had confidence in my abilities, but they began to wane fast. By Sunday morning, when we had our individual time with the teacher’s aides, I was officially discouraged. I sat down with the man who was to help me with my issue.
“So, my biggest issue is that I thought I was better than I actually am. I know that sounds really self-involved… but, I’m serious. I have no trouble meditating for 15 minutes, but then everything goes to hell… I lose focus and I can’t keep my mind straight.”
He responded with something I never expected. This is the heart of mindfulness and why it’s so important.
“Actually, I think you are as good at meditation as you think you are. What’s happening at 15 minutes is you are beginning to catch your mind wandering. For those first few minutes, your mind may be roaming around but you aren’t noticing it. But, at that specific point, you have begun to do the real work. You are seeing the present moment and coming back to it more and more.”
“Wait, so I’m getting better at this? But, it feels like I’m getting worse!”
“That’s how it goes. You’ll be fine! Try not to judge yourself for your progress.”
Try not to judge myself for my progress? Wow…
I left the retreat feeling confused, but ultimately happy that I went.
Two weeks later, I was shopping for groceries. I picked up an apple and my brain snapped away from its day dream. And, I felt very connected to the fact that I just picked up an apple.
A week after that, I was taking a test. I wasn’t there mentally. I was in some far away land of video gaming and thinking about what junk food I would indulge in that night.
I was taking the test again.
That’s the first step on the road to Mindfulness.
Come back to the breath. Keep going. It’s begun!